Good news for fans of perennial Wears The Trousers favourite Pepi Ginsberg: she’s back, and her musical evolution continues apace. Following 2008′s art-pop release Red comes her new long-player East Is East, again produced by Dr Dog’s Scott McMicken, this time featuring a superband of hand-picked musicians, each of whom has added their own whimsical layer to the Ginsberg sound (from guitar effects produced only with the hands to cookie sheets used in with the drums).
Conceived during a drive along the Montauk highway while listening to Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, the album was intended to sound like the experimental lovechild of Dylan and Deerhoof, and both sides of the genepool run deep here; a ‘hoofian jittery, spluttery percussion style perfectly complements the bold and visionary lyrical approach that has unmistakably been formed from years of exposure to Dylan, the way fine wine is imbued with the scent of the oak barrels in which it is matured.
And much like fine wine, the effect of East Is East creeps up on you gradually, with a pleasingly slow-burning intoxication. Album opener ‘Shake This’ is the perfect introduction to the scattered, twitchy instrumentation and syrupy vocal legato which characterise Ginsberg’s fourth album more than any of her other works. The similarly strong title track belies its lyrical certainty (“East is always East”) with an instrumental propulsion that’s anything but reassuring, the offbeat percussion, wandering vocal melodies, hiccupping guitars and fidgety basslines all combining to produce something arrestingly original and irrepressibly playful, the effects of which are magnified with repeated listens. Similarly, ‘Lost River’ is a triumph of exuberance set against a backdrop of beatnik excess, as urgent as it is joyful.
The buoyancy of the album, though one of its greatest features, is brought into startling relief on the occasional track such as ‘Coca Cola’, a slightly dampened, musically more conventional piece which lays bare a mildly melancholy, heartfelt earnestness. In lesser hands, lyrics like ‘Mercury Tide’s “so what more can I do / but give the best of me to the best of you” could feel stilted or stultifying, but Ginsberg makes it feel simpler and truer than a well-done sum. Tender moments such as this and the Joni-esque ‘Coal To Diamonds’, with its muted ukulele and murmuring fingerpicking, are among the album’s highlights, adding a softness to the general exuberance which gives the record a spaciousness and depth in which to resonate. Production-wise, too, the ideal balance is struck between voice and accompaniment, foregrounding Ginsberg’s wonderfully rich voice and providing the clearest of skies for her verbal fireworks.
East Is East is an addictive album that deserves to take its place proudly next to (and beyond) anything Regina Spektor has offered in the last few years; if there is any justice, 2010 will be the year which sees her break through and enjoy the fanbase that music of this emotion and this quality deserves. The mercurial flow of the record and the tidal emotions it entertains mark this out as something special. Ginsberg’s deftness and lightness of touch “illuminates every shape and shadow”. “Let her walk [us] to tomorrow”, and have another listen on me.
[Park The Van; February 1, 2010]